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Graham Allcott

Think Productive

Director

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Trainers Tip: How to get in the zone

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Are you having trouble focusing on work? Graham Allcott provides the community with another great Trainer's Tip that could help you out.

"I was already on pole position...I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel." 
Ayrton Senna (Formula One Champion) speaking after qualifying sessions for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix:
Do you ever experience 'flow'? If you do, you probably understand the experience to be a kind of 'in the zone' level of productivity where you just keep going, you're delivering good work, at speed, uninterrupted and peculiarly efficiently. If you never feel like that, well, read on.

Flow

Flow as a psychological concept is perhaps best explained in laymen's terms as being 'in the groove' or 'in the zone'. It is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced.
"To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task."
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energised, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.
So how can you induce this state of 'flow' in yourself and create the conditions so that you maximise the state of flow within your organization to ensure greater productivity and motivation?

Barriers to 'flow'

One of the biggest barriers to achieving a regular state of flow is 'information uncertainty': the stress or confusion caused by either unclear tasks or an overload of tasks or information that still need to be defined. 
Many years ago, Peter Drucker coined the term 'knowledge work'. Put simply, our jobs in the 'knowledge work economy' involve adding value and creating value from information. At the heart of the Drucker definition is the idea that in order to add value or create value out of information, we need to define as well as do. We are simultaneously taking on the role of boss and worker all at the same time, rather than in conventional, old-fashioned functional work roles where there is a clear task for us to do, where the speed at which we must work is determined not by our energy or motivation, but by the speed of the conveyor belt or the words of an evil supervisor. 

'Potential meaning overload'

The phrase we most often hear is 'information overload'. Information itself is actually not the problem at all. The problem, as defined so brilliantly by David Allen, author of the best-seller, Getting Things Done, is 'potential meaning overload'.
It's the 'potential meaning' of each piece of information as it gets our attention that is so overwhelming. Why? Two reasons. 
First, the meaning could potentially be a gold mine (extra funding, helping the charity achieve its mission, new opportunities for exciting partnerships) or a land mine ('if I miss this deadline we’ll look bad', 'we need to comply with this', 'we can't afford to not be involved' and so on). As civil society organisations, adding the right value to the right information is arguably more critical than anywhere else: rarely in the private or public sectors is it a matter of life or death to organisations. 
 
"Reducing and eliminating uncertainty, completing our thinking about defining meaning and impact in our work, keeping projects and actions in an external system rather than in our heads and being conscious of how to eliminate distractions are the critical habits."
Second, our brains are limited in their ability to retain information. If you don't believe me, think back to that childhood party game, 'I went to the shops and I bought...' Very few people can retain more than about 10 things in their mind without starting to drop things, yet most people decide their brains are the best place to try to retain all their projects and commitments rather than externalising this properly into lists, project plans and so on. It's so much easier to see the wood from the trees - and make intuitive decisions about comparative value - when you can actually SEE all the trees.
We can fool other people, but we can’t fool our own brains. Reducing and eliminating uncertainty, completing our thinking about defining meaning and impact in our work, keeping projects and actions in an external system rather than in our heads and being conscious of how to eliminate distractions are the critical habits. Get beyond the noise, get to the work that really matters and experience a regular state of 'flow'.
Graham Allcott is a Brighton-based social entrepreneur and the founder of Think Productive, a specialist time management training company offering workshops with 'at desk coaching'. They run email training, such as 'Getting your Inbox to Zero' and 'Email Etiquette' as well as a practical facilitation training course called 'Making Meetings Magic'. 

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Graham Allcott

Director

Read more from Graham Allcott
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